Sunday 17 April 2016

Question time

With voting due to take place in just over a fortnight for seats in the next Scottish Parliament, the doorstep at Tense Towers has remained conspicuously candidate-free of any Orkney hopefuls. Mind on, much literature has been brought by the postman, but these circulars only deal with the issues which the candidates think will bring them the best chance of success on polling day. Perhaps not so surprisingly, these issues aren't at the top of the Tense agenda.

In an effort to counter this unintended slight, I have written to the five candidates for the Orkney seat (but not the folk on the regional list) with a few questions on a topic close to my heart, to find out what their respective views are and to help me make up my mind as to which way to vote. 

Here's the letter sent to each candidate for the local constituency:

Dear ,

In order to help me decide upon my voting preferences, I am writing to you and the other four candidates standing for election as the Orkney MSP.

Whilst hustings and door-to-door campaigning are all very well, not every issue of concern to Orcadian voters will be discussed, so I would appreciate a reply to the questions that are of most importance from my point of view.

Tourism plays an important part in the local economy (£31 million in 2013, according to VisitScotland), with many visitors coming to Orkney to watch and photograph our stunning wildlife. The floral and faunal assemblage in the archipelago is very special, with endemic species (found nowhere else in the world) and important breeding colonies of species under threat (see the RPSB's Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern 4 published in 2015).

As I would hope you already know, the Orkney vole, Microtus agrestis orcadensis, endemic to seven of the islands in Orkney, is under threat from an introduced, non-native predator, the Stoat. In mainland UK, stoats are not that much of a problem as there are larger predators controlling their numbers, but in Orkney this is not the case, allowing the population to increase and expand exponentially since the first sightings in 2010. A report, commissioned last year by SNH, into the probable impacts of this situation concluded that the most likely scenario would be a catastrophic decline in the vole population, from which it would not recover.

The voles also support breeding populations of several raptors, two of which (Hen harrier and Short-eared owl) are featured in the RSPB's Red and Amber lists of conservation concern. In fact, Orkney is a shining light as far as Hen harriers are concerned, due to raptor persecution in England and mainland Scotland. So, loss of the Orkney vole would have disastrous consequences for these birds.

Worse still, being a successful predator, the stoat is not limited to one food source. Once the voles have been wiped out, other wildlife will be threatened, principally the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds such as Curlew, Lapwing, Ringed plover, Hen harrier (again!), Arctic skua and Skylark (all on the Red List), as well as Shelduck, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Snipe, Great skua, Arctic tern, Short-eared owl (again!) and Meadow pipit (all on the Amber List).

I am sure that you would agree, this is a large proportion of the visible and audible wildlife that makes Orkney such a fantastic place to live, work and visit.

By its own admission, SNH was slow to react effectively to this problem but, towards the end of last year, two project officers arrived in Orkney to reinvigorate a previously-unsuccessful volunteer trapping scheme. With the long term objective being to protect Orkney's wildlife with a fully-funded total eradication of stoats, SNH see the volunteer programme as a means of collecting data and evaluating the merits of trapping techniques, whilst acknowledging that it will only ever scratch the surface of the problem. The hope is obviously to secure sufficient funding to allow the full eradication programme to take place from 2017/18 onwards.

However, this week, volunteers received the news that one of the posts, that of the dedicated full-time volunteer co-ordinator, is no longer funded, with the point of contact for volunteers now being an SNH member of staff in Shetland. Hardly the most encouraging piece of news in the funding saga, eh?

So, my questions to you are:

1.In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's wildlife is posed by the presence of stoats?

2. In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's tourism industry is posed by the loss of such iconic species as Orkney vole, Hen harrier and Short-eared owl?

3. Should Scottish Government funding be made available to SNH now (or very soon in the next parliament) to implement the full stoat eradication programme immediately?

4. If not, why not?

I look forward to hearing your reply and will, along with this letter, publish it on my personal blog so as to also help other folk decide upon their voting preferences.

Kind Regards,

Graeme Walker

As indicated above, any replies received will be published on Imperfect and Tense.

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